Tonight at 6:30pm PST (to be shown on TNT), in Dallas, TX, the 8th seeded, perennial underdog Golden State Warriors (from Oakland, CA) stand on the precipice of perhaps the greatest upset in NBA history when they take on 1st seeded Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 of their best of 7 series. The lovable and overachieving Warriors are up 3-1, one game away from knocking out the mighty Mavs.
It’s been 12 seasons since the Warriors have even been in the Western Conference Playoffs while the Mavs have been a perennial powerhouse this decade. In fact, even with the Warriors up 3-1, the odds makers still don’t have alot of confidence in them giving them only about a 59.5% chance of winning one of the next 3 games and knocking off the Mavs.
The basketball has been, and should continue to be, exhilirating. But the behind the scenes the drama is compelling as well.
Current Warriors Coach Don Nelson and Mavs Owner, a successful businessmen and potentially this generation’s version of Donald Trump, Mark Cuban resurrected the Mavericks franchise in the early part of this decade. From perennial losers the Mavs have become one of the consistently best teams in the formidable Western Conference culminating in a run to last year’s NBA Finals.
The Mavs team is built around their star, MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki, an at the time 19 year old unknown from Germany who Nelson traded top draft picks for in 1997 prompting Sports Illustrated to call him a “mad scientist”.
Current Mavs Coach Avery Johnson was given his chance in the NBA as a player by Don Nelson during Nelson’s first stint as Warriors coach in the late 80s and 90s. A small, muscular, poor shooting but ultimately indomitable spirit, Johnson was undrafted and NBA teams had little interest in him. Nelson saw something in him and gave him a shot. Johnson ultimately had a sucessful NBA career including starting as point guard in for the NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs in 1999.
Nellie, as Nelson is called, then hired Johnson on as an assistant with the Mavericks and groomed him to take over his job as Head Coach, which he ultimately did towards the end of 2004-05 season.
But, as The Wall Street Journal documented in a front page story this morning (free WSJ article), all is not well among former friends and colleagues. Towards the end of his tenure, Nelson and Cuban had a falling out and it appears as if Cuban still owes Nelson $6.6 million in deferred compensation which he refuses to pay. Nelson has a lawyer and is in the process of filing an arbitration claim against Cuban.
One of Nelson’s oldest and closest friends, Del Harris, who he hired on as an assistant with the Mavericks when he was head coach is still there as an assistant to Avery Johnson. His son, Donnie, still works in the Mavs’ front office.
If all that wasn’t enough, foolhardy former basketball star and current TNT analyst Charles Barkley interjected himself into the scene by essentially saying that the Warriors had no chance by predicting that the Mavs would sweep the next 4 games after the Warriors won Game 1.
After the Warriors won Game 3, Warriors fans showed up for Game 4 in Oakland with Barkley signs mocking the feckless analyst. Barkley characteristically responded (before the game) by insulting the Warriors and the entire Bay Area saying: “I would rather stay on Alcatraz than San Francisco or Oakland”. He dawned a Dirk Nowitzki Maverick’s jersey over his suit and said now he was rooting for the Mavs.
The Warriors went on to win Game 4, dramatically overcoming a 4th quarter defecit. Barkley, as usualy, wouldn’t admit he was wrong and give the Warriors credit. Barkley is one of those guys, and they exist in the stock market as well, known as a “contrary indicator”: you always feel better about your chances when you find out you’ve bet against him.
And then there is the inspirational story, the story of Baron “The Body Guard” Davis, the Warriors indomitable leader. Raised by his grandmother in Compton CA, Davis was starring at UCLA as a freshman when he tore his ACL in the NCAA Tournament in 1998. He came back to have an excellent sophomore season and was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1999.
Continuously riddled by injuries Davis has shown flashes of what he could be but never consistently, never on such a big stage. Lost in the shuffle, amid all the other great stars of the NBA, Davis is finally showing the world how good he really is. Going against a loaded Mavs team, against talked up MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki, Baron Davis has stood above them all, clearly the best player in the series, leading his “midget” team to the brink of perhaps the greatest upset in NBA history.
Tempted as I am to pick the better team to come back and win this series, I’m loathe to bet against the greatness that is Baron Davis in what seems, more and more, to be his moment.